Leif Ove Andsnes, the intrepid explorer of Beethoven

Leif Ove Andsnes on his Beethoven Journey (credit NRK)Leif Ove Andsnes on his Beethoven Journey (credit NRK)

In February 1997, Leif Ove Andsnes made his New York Philharmonic debut playing Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto. The late, great composer/pianist Robert Helps was present and he declared that he had never heard the piece played better: no small praise from one who had heard Rachmaninov perform live in concert. 

Since then, Andsnes has amassed a fervent and faithful New York public over the past 15 years. He was the youngest artist to curate and perform in Carnegie Hall’s ‘Perspectives’ series during the 2004/5 season. In November 2009, New Yorkers got to experience ‘Pictures Reframed’, Andsnes’s multimedia project with visual artist Robin Rhode, in which the pianist played Mussorgsky’s Picture at an Exhibition while Rhodes’s illustrations and films inspired by the music were projected onto a stage set at the newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall. 

However, for his latest large-scale project, Andsnes moves forward by stepping back, so to speak. He has embarked on a multi-year ‘Beethoven Journey’ that encompasses all five piano concertos, selected sonatas and chamber music. This past spring, Andsnes led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard in a seven-city European tour with performances at the Prague Spring Festival of the First and Third Concertos which were recorded live by Sony Classical for the pianist’s label debut. Its release marks the first instalment of a cycle including all five concertos and the Choral Fantasy and also coincided with the New York Philharmonic’s opening week of the 2012/13 season. The Philharmonic’s music director Alan Gilbert and Andsnes preceded a swift, transparent performance of Beethoven’s Third Concerto with György Kurtág’s …quasi una fantasia, where small groups of instruments are strategically placed at different points throughout the hall, with the pianist, the timpanist and the conductor alone on the stage. 

During this run of four performances Andsnes made his only solo New York appearance this season at New York Public Radio’s intimate and acoustically refined Greene Space, offering energetic yet well-thought-out interpretations of Beethoven’s Waldstein (Op 53) and Op 54 sonatas to a small, obviously appreciative audience. In place of the Greene Space’s excellent house piano was a gorgeous rebuilt Steinway provided by Klavierhaus. I suspect that its responsive action facilitated execution of the Waldstein’s notorious descending unison octaves, which sounded unusually feathery and precise. Later on Andsnes confessed his unorthodox yet effective solution to this controversial passage: he plays the left hand as a glissando, while, at the same time, fingering the right-hand notes.

‘Although I certainly have played Beethoven, it really has not been a centerpiece of my repertoire,’ Andsnes said during a brief yet affable interview in midtown New York. ‘I made other things priorities. I worked on and recorded Schubert sonatas for years, and basically put Beethoven on the side: they are contemporaries, yet so different, and while working on Schubert, I didn’t want Beethoven to get in the way, so to speak! However, I had played all of the concertos before and I started thinking that now is the time to really dive into this gigantic universe and try to understand this man Beethoven a little better.’ 

One aspect of Beethoven’s sound world that Andsnes focused upon at the Greene Space was the piano writing’s spatial elements, particularly in the composer’s fondness for exploiting the piano’s extreme registers. ‘As a child I was often frustrated about the fact that in Beethoven one hand was up high in the treble and the other low down in the bass and there was nothing in the middle, compared to Mozart, for example. And for a child that is not so easy to understand or to deal with, and it takes time and maturity to understand this spatial characteristic.’ 

Andsnes also connects this idea to the problem of finding the right tempos in certain movements. ‘The First Concerto’s Largo, for instance, is marked alla breve. Some feel the music should be very fluent, and I tried it often in my process, but ultimately began to miss that element of wonder. But you can’t allow the music to get static – there’s a lot of space, yet it shouldn’t be pedestrian. And the Third Concerto’s slow movement is marked Largo yet it’s in 3/8 time, which is a time signature usually used for faster tempi. The note values on the page look extremely busy, it seems so crowded, yet it’s still marked Largo, there’s a lot of space in this music. Herbert Blomstedt told me that he thought the reason for this time signature was that Beethoven might have had German Baroque notation in mind, like a Bach violin sonata, where the notes look crowded on the page, in contrast to Italian Baroque, which is very neat and full of longer note values. I thought this was an interesting observation, that the notation shouldn’t look too neat and clean!’

Just as Beethoven struggled to get his ideas on paper in their final form, via sketching, rewriting and revising, his piano writing presents a wealth of hurdles in terms of execution and interpretation. When asked which concerto is the most challenging, Andsnes unhesitatingly nominated No 5, the so-called Emperor, owing to its pianistic difficulty and diversity of demands, although he hasn’t yet conducted it from the piano. ‘As far as the concerto that is most challenging to coordinate from the piano, I’d be most curious about the process with the Emperor, because there is so much to play, and from the orchestra’s point of view, it’s so symphonic, so grand. That, of course demands more of a “spine” from the podium, and with me playing I wouldn’t be able to conduct as much. But the Mahler Chamber Orchestra is so wonderful and responsive that I’m sure there’s a way that they’ll find their “spine”.’

The lean textures and discreet vibrato characterising these new recordings reveals Andsnes’s interest in period performance, but he feels that the modern concert grand more effectively communicates the music’s message in concert-hall situations. He does, however, hold affection for great Beethoven performances of the past, such as Richter’s Appassionata and Op 26. ‘Schnabel’s slow movements are unbelievable, and also some of his Scherzos, although I find some of his neurotic qualities and the rushing in his playing difficult – the lack of control – but his music-making is always flying, you know. And going further back, one Beethoven recording that I absolutely adore is Rachmaninov playing the 32 C minor Variations…well, actually less than 32, because he skipped some of them!’ 

As conductor/pianist, does Andsnes envision going further than Beethoven in terms of repertoire? ‘People have tried different things – think about Krystian Zimerman’s Chopin, for instance. Schumann, I think, is quite feasible, but it’s a matter of the quality of orchestra and the quantity of rehearsal time. In a normal orchestra week you just have one rehearsal the day before the concert. With some chamber orchestras you have more time to develop something, and, consequently, one can do many pieces. But I’m never going to play a Rachmaninov concerto without a conductor, that’s for sure!’ 

Read Gramophone’s review of the first Beethoven concerto disc, the Recording of the Month in the current November issue, and listen to a complete track from the album in the Gramophone Player. And you can download James Jolly's podcast interview with Leif Ove Andsnes for free here.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014